The poetics and narrative of Etudes et Souvenirs de l’Orient
Similarly to most nineteenth-century literature on exploring and travelling in Palestine, Etudes et Souvenirs de l ’Orient is characterized by a deep interest in the Bible and other holy scriptures that are the lens through which the Near
East and the Holy Land are constantly viewed. Aimed at fulfilling the requests of many Catholic clerics and monks to gain new and useful insights into the ancient and modern East, biblical archaeology, interpretations of the Holy Texts and the socio-political conditions of the Near East regarding Catholic interests,20 Etudes et Souvenirs de l ’Orient appears to be an accumulation of literary genres on Palestine where scriptural-geographical apologetics coalescence with travellers’ and pilgrims’ tales, creating a “structure of feeling”21 between the author and his audience that is deeply circumscribed within the specific cultural and institutional environment22 of the Vatican and Catholic Europe. De Wandelbourg was not an individual or independent traveller unbacked by an institution or a government.23 He reached Palestine, the Holy Land proprement dite, as a high prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, travelling in the Near East with missionaries of the Patriarchate, with its employees or with the Patriarch Mgr Valerga. Accordingly, although his individual freedom and ability to represent, portray, characterise and depict have to be respected, his resulting narrative was inevitably circumscribed and socially regulated24 by his membership and role in the Roman Church.
De Wandelbourg was a mitred abbot, canon of the Holy Sepulchre, and a Doctor of Theology of the Pontifical University in Rome. His work was introduced by approving letters from Pope Leo XIII and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, immediately gaining in the eyes of his readers a particular authority reinforced by the fact of De Wandelbourg’s being a close friend of Mgr Valerga, “one of his dearest sons”,25 and his historian during his four years of pastoral visits to the Near East.26 Accordingly, the land of Palestine became the theologian’s work field, a living biblical commentary because of being “witness” to those holy events and people27 and the territory where the revival of the Latin Patriarchate was achieving its first successes under the guidance of Mgr Valerga, the first Latin Catholic Patriarch permanently resident in Jerusalem since the Crusades.
The figure of the Latin Patriarch is a ubiquitous presence in De Wandelbourg’s work, performing a dual role. Firstly, Mgr Valerga is the main character in the second volume. In the “Avertissement”, De Wandelbourg points out that one of the main purposes of his work is to “record his most intimate thoughts, and collect the memories of his glorious career and the fruits of his incomparable experience of the East”.28 Secondly, comparing his role as historian of Mgr Valerga’s pastoral visits to that of Saint Luke in relation to Saint Paul, he reasserts his relationship with the Latin Patriarch, whom “Pope Pius IX appointed as his right arm to govern the Eastern Churches”.29 The Latin Patriarch fulfils the role of intermediary between the Holy Land, the author, the readers and vice-versa. In this way De Wandelbourg increased the authority of his narrative, thus reinforcing what Livingstone describes as “the crucial connection between travel experience and testimonial authority, between geographical location and sound reputation”.30
Following De Wandelbourg’s narrative path, the East “en general” and the Holy Land “en particulier” are described as the cradle of humanity, “antique rendezvous” of all the nations, theatre of noble mysteries, revealed for the observer equally for their historical past and the secular immobility of their mores and appearance.31 A land sought and studied because it was an inexhaustible mine of treasures for archaeologists, historians and theologians.32 The East is thus perceived as a territory that does not change, as De Wandelbourg explained: “it is now as it was forty centuries ago, not only as a whole, but also in its details”.33
In this regard, Etudes and Souvenirs de l ’Orient conforms with much orientalist literature of the nineteenth century in adopting binary oppositions between an “us” and a “them”, characterized by an ontological distinction between the West and the rest of the world, where the East as a whole could be intellectually acquired because of its historical immobility and passivity.34
This particular image of the East and the Holy Land is not only adopted but is constructed and worked out through De Wandelbourg’s journey, where the “revival” is the means of establishing “continuity with a sustainable historic past”.35 This formative intellectual act perfectly explains the nature and the purpose of his work, right from the title chosen. Firstly, “Etudes” and “Souvenirs” are important narrative fictions to link the two volumes, shepherding the readers along De Wandelbourg’s “voyage interieur” and “voyage exterieur”. They are also rhetorical devices of his poetics through which he animates bucolic, uplifting and peaceful biblical views of the Holy Land, inhabited by “the descendants of Sem, [that], by their instinct of fixity and stability, were predestined as assistants of the Evangelical Redemption and custodians of the oldest traditions, human and divine”,36 to which De Wandelbourg opposes European talent degenerated by secularist and atheist revolutionary attitudes.
Secondly, “Etudes” and “Souvenirs” are the outcomes of the encounter with a land that is terra incognita, that needs to be studied, and at the same time a place familiar to De Wandelbourg and his readers from which memories are constantly arising. This land of remembrances and studies thus became a terra cognita in the broad sense, thanks to De Wandelbourg’s journey and the account of Mgr Valerga’s pastoral visits. The result is a pseudo-pilgrimage37 that creates a link between the reader, the biblical land and the revived diocese of the Latin Patriarchate. The contemporary Ottoman Palestine, especially with regard to its Muslim dimension, is almost ignored or, at least, relegated to the picturesque.38 The Ottoman Empire and its Muslim subjects are mentioned only as protectors of the “refuge” of Catholicism39 and repositories of imaginary legends that gain De Wandelbourg’s interest because of their accordance with biblical traditions.40
Finally, “Etudes” and “Souvenirs” allow the author to move freely and without contradictions between different times and spaces, embracing both the biblical and the contemporary Holy Land that are permanently reunited through the “revival” of the Latin Patriarchate.